Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
New topic, today we’re talking about power struggles and gridlock conflict. That was The Coathangers with the song Down Down, setting the mood for us today because downward spiral is basically what happens, in summary, when couples get stuck in these power struggles, gridlock issues. They’re butting heads, no one is compromising. No one is budging. And it’s a stalemate. Not a fun place to be in, but a very common situation in relationships. And believe it or not, a solvable problem.
And one that I’ve been hearing a lot of you are struggling with lately. I’ve been hearing from your comments on the blog at growingself.com on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby that this is turning into a pretty major pain point in your relationship. So we are talking about this today on the show. And I hope by the end of our time together, you have some clarity, and some direction and maybe even some new ideas for things to try to break through the impasse and cultivate compromise and agreement with the one you love most.
If this is your first time listening today, hello, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. And this is the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast. Every week we tackle topics that are important to you and that are helpful in your quest for love and exciting, happy, fulfilling relationships—both romantic and platonic. Happiness, meaning that you are feeling good about yourself and your life, and also success that you are being who you were put here to be and creating success according to your own definition. So, every week we are talking about something related to that often based on your questions. So if you have a question for me, leave it on the blog at growingself.com, or get in touch on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby or on Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby.
And I really wanted to tackle this subject of gridlock issues today because, oh, you guys, it’s been coming up so much. And let me tell you where this has been coming up in particular, lately it is related to couples who are not on the same page about how to handle issues related to Coronavirus. Now, certainly gridlock issues are nothing new. I have been a marriage counselor, a relationship coach and a psychologist for a long time and frequently work with couples or individuals in relationships where there is just, both people have dug in around their individual positions. And it is often around a black and white issue. That’s kind of the definition of a gridlock conflict. One person wants to have a baby, the other does not. One person needs to live by the ocean, the other one needs to live in the mountains. Or they really want to live with their family of origin, back in the small town in Mississippi, and the other person must live in New York or they’re going to die. I mean, it’s like things that are difficult to compromise around. Yes or no. Black or white. This or that.
And I wanted to address it because gridlock conflict is one of these things that almost all couples face at some point or another—very common—again. But it’s also one of those things that if you don’t have a plan to get through it, it will create so much negativity and hostility and conflict and resentment. And the relationship over time it can really, again, begin to eat away at the fabric of your positive partnership. And it’s very easy to get into a good gridlock conflict, we’ll certainly talk about why it is hard to get out of a gridlock conflict that has turned into a power struggle. But there is a path forward.
So first of all, let’s talk about what happens to every couple when they get into a power struggle around a gridlock conflict where it feels like one person is going to win, and one person is going to lose. And each person starts fighting to the death to have their way of seeing things prevail and be accepted by their partner. And so, if you will, just enter into this mindset with me, right? Because we’ve all been there. I have done this, you have done this, we’ve all done this. It feels like when things like this come up that are very important to you, it feels like you’re right. And you know, you’re right. You have 197 reasons why you are right, and why your partner is wrong. And if they could just see things from your perspective, and hear what you’re saying and like let it in, then they too would be able to understand the truth. And they would change their mind, their opinions would be swayed. And not only would they agree with you, they would get into alignment with what you want this to look like going forward. And not only that, but when they did, they would be so happy they did. Because as soon as they did, they would really understand even more deeply that your perspective was the right one all along. They will have great sorrow and remorse for fighting you tooth and nail. They’ll say, “You know what? You were right. It really is better this way. We did the right thing.” And you will smooch, and the credits will come on at the end of the sitcom and you will live happily ever after. If only they would listen, right?
Okay, maybe not the credits part but that’s kind of how it feels when you are in this situation with your partner. I mean, they’re just being unreasonable, right? They are not taking in the facts, the truth. They just need to listen. And so we put all of our energy into explaining to them why we’re right and they are wrong. It may involve charts, graphs, pictures, outside sources, scientific journal articles. Exhibit A. They need to talk to your Uncle Joe, who is going to tell you the same thing that you’re telling them. It turns into a campaign, right?
And as you are probably experiencing in your own life, what happens is that they seem to dig in even more deeply. And the more you try to explain to them why they’re wrong and why you’re right, they argue with you. They don’t listen. They even start avoiding and it just turns into this whole thing. Or they try to tell you why you’re wrong, and then you have to argue with them why they’re telling you that you’re wrong is actually wrong. And, right? It is a spiral down and it tends to intensify. And it tends to polarize, meaning that it pushes couples further apart. And both people dig in deeper, and over time, it starts to feel increasingly hopeless. Not fun, not fun for anyone.
And I’ll tell you what, I actually, a lot of this is coming up as I mentioned around coronavirus. I met with a journalist for an interview recently as I sometimes do, and her question was, “Dr. Lisa, what do you do with a couple who, for example, Parent A really wants their kids to go to school this fall, doesn’t feel that the risk is that big, we can manage it, it’s going to be okay. And the benefits to the child of being in school, or the benefits to our family of the child being in school outweighs the risks of them getting sick or anybody else getting sick. So they should go to school. And Parent B is like, no, the risk is too high. The consequences are too severe. I am not willing to risk the health and safety of our child, of ourselves, of our community. And even if it’s gonna be hard on us, we will figure it out.”
That is real quickly turning into a big gridlock battle for a lot of couples in, you know, school is one thing but it can also be like, “Should we or shouldn’t we go into the grocery store versus online delivery? Is it okay to go over to our friends’ houses? Is it alright for our child to have playdates?” And sort of this like, “How are we as a couple managing the risk of coronavirus?” And oftentimes when a person perceives the threat as being more serious and real than the other, it can turn into big gridlock issues. But again, gridlock can happen around many, many different kinds of things—from parenting to finances, to how we spend our time together, to major life decisions about what we are doing with our family, having more children.
And so knowing what gridlock is, and what power struggles are, and how to not just walk them back but ideally avoid them is a very necessary and important relationship skill. So we might be talking about coronavirus stuff today, but please know that these are all very generalizable skills.
And so one thing to know about gridlock conflict, it’s like, I think maybe a good metaphor here, it’s like struggling to untie a knot and you indirectly and unintentionally tighten the knot. The more that you like to try to untie it, something gets increasingly snarled. And this is a really good way of understanding what happens in power struggles and what to not do.
When couples begin to fight with each other more vigorously and more actively campaign for the other person to listen and understand and respect their side, they are unintentionally creating a dynamic where it is less likely that the conflict will be satisfactorily resolved. And instead, it intensifies the power struggle underlying the conflict. And this is a hard one because it feels natural to fight. It feels natural to advocate for your position. And in this situation, it is the least helpful approach.
Again, going back to the words of Dr. John Gottman, who is a researcher in the field of marriage and family therapy. He’s probably the most famous and well-founded researcher in the field of marriage and family therapy. His words of wisdom, which are hard to take in. Because I don’t want to get into a power struggle with you, my friend, but so I’m just gonna say this out loud and let you marinate on this for a second is that—some problems are actually unsolvable in the sense that there will always be major differences between you, in the way that you see some things, in the way that you prefer things to be done in your values, in the way that you, I don’t know, the hierarchy of information and the way that you process things. There will always be these differences in a relationship. And again, this is hard to let in if you feel like, especially if you feel like a decision must be made, that the path through it is an indirect one. It is, let’s see, what is Dr. Gottman’s quote. He says, “Your purpose is not to solve the conflict completely. It will never go away completely. The goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue and try to remove the hurt so that the problem stops being a source of great pain.”
I know that is probably not what you wanted me to say right now. You wanted me to tell you, “Okay, here’s a communication technique that you can use to get your partner to actually hear you this time so that they can let in what you’re saying. And then finally agree with you so that you can both move on.” That is actually, again, not the goal. The goal is to take away the pain, to accept unsolvable problems, and find a path together that allows you to stay connected as a couple. And let’s talk a little bit more deeply about what achieving that looks like in practice. Because if you’re thinking, “I can’t do that, that’s hard.” It is hard, it is hard. And it’s unnecessary.
So the first thing to do, instead of fighting, if you find yourself getting into a power struggle with your partner, is to very intentionally and deliberately step away from trying to find resolution. Stop trying to solve the unsolvable problem. And instead put all of your energy and attention into seeking to understand where your partner is coming from. Your only job in the first stages of this is to—with your full attention and insincerity, no ulterior motives here—is to put yourself in their shoes. Seek to understand how they’re thinking, and how they’re feeling in a very respectful and authentic way.
And I do mean this. It has to be sincere, it cannot be, “Well, if I understand them and I make them understand that I get it, then they will be able to understand where I’m coming from. And will finally see my point of view, and we can just do it my way and move on.” That can’t be the intention, it really has to be, “No. My job right now is to understand the person that I love and their point of view.” So what that looks like is saying, “We’re going around and around in circles about this, we are not coming to an agreement. And you know what? I think we’ve been going about this the wrong way. Let’s instead really put our full attention and just understand each other instead of fighting with each other. I’m going to go first, tell me more about how you’re feeling and how you see this.” And really, I mean over a series of conversations, ask your partner, “Tell me more.”
When you think about the costs outweigh the benefits of our child going to school, what comes up in your mind? What do you imagine could happen if we do it the way that I’m advocating? And really make it an emotionally safe place for your partner to talk about their fears, their values, their concerns, their feelings, what it’s attached to in terms of their orientation to the world. And really help them know that you understand.
And so you might hear someone saying things like, “Well, we don’t know anyone that’s gotten sick from coronavirus. And, when I think about how hard it’s been for our family this past summer, and kids are watching way too much TV. And I really feel very afraid of them falling behind academically. I worry that they’re missing big foundational things academically that will be very difficult for them to make up, and that they might struggle later in life as a result of this. I worry that our 12-year-old is at a crucial moment in terms of their social development. And if they don’t have kind of normal experiences with other kids, it’s really going to change the way they show up in relationships well into adulthood. Those things make me feel afraid. And so when I am digging my heels in about, ‘No, I think that kids should go to school,’ it’s really because I’m worried about what will happen to them if we don’t. And I also think, we’re strong, we’re healthy, we don’t have underlying health conditions.” I mean, it could be all kinds of things.
And for someone who feels differently about this, this can be a very triggering conversation. As you sit with your partner and really, they’re talking about things that you don’t agree with, your job in these moments is to calm down. If your heart rate starts to go up, and you feel like you’re going into fight-or-flight trigger mode, you will not be able to hear anything they’re saying. And your job is to calm yourself back down, take a break if you have to. And really just remember that your only job right now is to listen to them and understand them, and in a respectful and sincere way.
And it takes time to do that, particularly if you’re feeling triggered and flooded. And the things that they’re saying are scaring you to death, frankly. And, of course, then, once your partner’s feelings are really heard and respected and understood, the other step is to then give you the opportunity to have the same experience with them—where they settle into understanding you. And you get to talk about your perspective around, “People are dying and even people who don’t die sometimes have severe and persistent health consequences. And yeah, maybe kids don’t get as sick as adults but they do get sick. And here’s what can happen if they do. And think about what might happen to us in our family if you and I get this. And what would happen to our children if you and I are incapacitated or hospitalized or not able to work or function as a result of being sick. And what could this mean.” And it could be anything from your point of view, and I’m again talking about coronavirus.
It could be like, “This is what having another child means to me and this is what I hope about the experience. And what I’m afraid of is if we don’t…” I mean, like really unpack it. It doesn’t certainly have to be specific to this but really go deeply, deeply into it. And again, simply with a goal of understanding, we are not here to solve problems. We are just here to understand each other’s hopes and dreams, and fears, and values, and perspectives. And help each other feel heard and respected and understood.
And couples can absolutely do this on their own, particularly if they’re good at staying calm and shifting away from their own perspective to the degree that they can allow in their partners. If you find that it feels impossible to do this, that you can’t actually just let their partner talk about the way they feel without wanting to interrupt them or tell them why they’re wrong, or if they’re not able to do that for you and it just is turning into a conflict, and listening and understanding isn’t possible to happen—that is a great sign that you actually do need the support of a marriage counselor or relationship coach. Somebody who can keep you from getting into a fight and instead simply hold the door open to allow both of you to understand each other on a very, very deep level.
And what you will often find when you do is that when you’re able to dig deeply down into core values, core feelings, and away from “what are we going to do to solve this problem” part, you’ll find that at the core, there are many more similarities and commonalities than there are differences. You both love your children. You both want to have a happy, satisfying life together. You both want meaning and purpose and joy and freedom and security, and all of these things. Like, there’s a lot of alignment at the foundational level. And coming into that place and reconnecting with all of the commonalities that you guys do have, in the context of feeling secure with each other—respected by each other, understood, really gotten on a deep level—then allows you to have the opportunity to begin crafting a middle path that is very deliberately taking into consideration, and prioritizing both of your hopes, both of your fears, and it turns into an entirely different conversation.
And the other thing that’s really neat is that when people get into power struggles and gridlock conflicts, it really does feel like a fight. And all of your energy is going into why you’re right and why they’re wrong, and, you know, if only they were just XYZ, which makes each of you really entrenched in one particular worldview. Like the more you kind of tell yourself why you’re right and why they’re wrong, and the more often you try to explain to them what your perspective makes the most sense, you’re selling yourself on your view of the world. And also, unintentionally, limiting your ability to expand your thinking into creative problem solving. It’s impossible to be really creative and come up with novel ideas and solutions, and the playfulness that’s required to get really creative feels absolutely inaccessible when you’re stuck in a conflict.
But when you can come back to a place of emotional safety and listening and understanding and respecting, you can generate novel ideas, be creative. You can play with each other. You can say, “Let’s play a game. If we were going to do this, and it was absolutely without any of the risks that we’ve identified as being a concern here, well, what could it look like?” And along those lines, being able to shift away from your fear, your concern, your hopes into “our fear,” “our hopes,” that you both take ownership for the perspective that each of you hold. And that it doesn’t become your partner’s fear, it becomes “our concern.” Because your partner’s feelings and perspectives in the stage of healing do actually need to be just as important as yours are. And when you use language like “our concerns,” “our hopes,” it communicates on many levels that whatever we ultimately decided to do about this is going to honor and prioritize your feelings as part of the solution, or we’re not going to do it. And that needs to happen both ways.
But if that becomes the truth, that both of your feelings are actually equally as valid as important, and you’re tasked with finding a solution that respects both of those priorities, what could that look like? And the answer is often a final “solution” that may be very different than the one that either of you were campaigning for in the very beginning. It could look like all kinds of different things. I mean, there are 100 different ways that schooling and socializing a child can actually look like in the time of a pandemic, that may or may not involve them setting a foot in a school building, and may or may not involve them sitting in front of a computer all day. I mean, I won’t go into the dozens and dozens of plausible ways to educate and socialize children that are actually at all of our disposal because that’s for you to figure out, and be creative around, and dream, and brainstorm.
And also, let me just—a little tip here. When you are brainstorming, it is very important to throw out any and all ideas specifically and especially the ones that seem absolutely ridiculous and not like anything anyone would ever do. Because when you allow yourself that kind of disinhibition and just creative kind of spelunking and splashing around, you’ll be amazed at what can come out of each of your head. And yes, 90% of it is going to be total rubbish and nothing that anybody would ever do, but there can be little diamonds and gems hidden away in all the mud and rubble. And your job is to create an environment of emotional safety and collaborative problem solving that is respectful, and that’s prioritizing each other’s feelings, and see what happens. Is this a fast process? No. It is usually going to take many days of intentional conversation and sincere efforts to understand each other first before we can change the emotional tone of a relationship enough to get into this nice place of collaborative understanding. And that can create anxiety for people, particularly if they feel that a deadline is looming.
I will also say that—I think we’ve talked about this on other shows—there is a personality feature that’s pretty common, but that can be very different between people in a couple. So without going into way too much information, there are different facets of personality, and sort of the way that you measure in different domains essentially creates your personality as a whole. One way of getting into it is through a personality assessment called the “Big Five of Personality.” I think that Myers-Briggs has some utility, which looks at personality along four different basic dimensions. But one of the most prominent ones that can come to play when it comes to gridlock issues and power struggles is a personality difference, where some individuals really like to be thinking ahead, and planning, and problem-solving, and anticipating problems, and proactively solving problems that may happen in the future and like trying to figure out what is going to happen, and they have a very future orientation. These are the people who have all of the weekends of their summer vacations scheduled by mid-May. They know they are going camping on the weekend of August the 27th with John and Carla. They like to have stuff figured out mentally and kind of put into place. And there can be other personality characteristics that kind of cluster with this basic orientation. But you know, they’re planners, right?
And at the other end of the spectrum is a personality type that is much more comfortable with leaving things open, with things being ambiguous. The personality tends to be confident that we’ll be able to solve whatever problems come up in the moment, and we don’t actually have to think about too far ahead because we’ll deal with it when it gets there. And they tend to be slower to arrive at solutions, and they also just have a much lower need to know what is going to happen. And they also can feel stressed when they’re kind of forced to be making decisions about things that maybe they don’t have all the information they feel like they need. That, in itself, can create anxiety, and it can also create resistance. And what it can look like in a relationship is somebody saying, “I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about this right now. It’s all gonna work out.” You know, which can be, as you can imagine, extremely frustrating to somebody who has more planning orientation who’s like, “No, we need to figure this out today. I need to know what we are doing when school starts three weeks from now because I can’t stop thinking about it.” And the other side of this, people with a planning orientation tend to feel a lot of anxiety when it feels like there are loose ends, when they don’t know what is going to happen.
So this is a common dynamic that can also be at the core level of a lot of power struggles in relationships is people with differences in their decision-making style and their planning style. And so, also being able to have conversations about the way you make decisions and your anxiety level about leaving things open versus anxiety around making specific plans that may or may not be based in reality because it feels better just to have a plan. A plan—doesn’t matter. For a couple to be talking about those differences can also go a long way and just decreasing the overall level of annoyance because you’re understanding why your partner is the way that they are. And it can add a kind of context for the conversations and help you both be respectful of what each other is needing. And also, potentially, both of you, maybe as individuals, taking efforts inside of yourself to come a little bit more to the center. So maybe if you have a strong planning orientation, getting more comfortable with the idea that, “I don’t actually know what this is gonna look like a couple months from now. And so maybe we do need to take this a little bit more day by day, week by week.” And for somebody who has a more open-ended orientation to be able to come back to the middle and say, “We do actually need to figure out, generally speaking, what we would like this to look like. Let’s find out the best situation. You know, it may change in the future, but we do need to have some conversations around what we’re going to do.” Because the default in any power struggle is that the person who is digging their heels in and not doing anything often wins by default because it blocks action from taking place.
So anyway, I’m probably getting way more into the weeds about some of the psychological dynamics at the root of our conflicts than any of you care to listen to. But these can be some of the obstacles in the path of couples seeking to create alignment and just things for you to be keeping in the back of your mind. And again, I am talking about this like it’s easy—it is not. As a marriage counselor, as a relationship coach, I often have to spend a long time with couples over many conversations as we unwind all of this stuff. You know, talking about different ways of thinking, different values, different messages from one’s family of origin, about the way things should be, and goes into, “Why am I the way I am? Why are you the way you are.” And again, this is necessary pre-work and really is the work in many ways of successfully unwinding a power struggle, and eventually creating alignment and collaborative problem-solving. But it feels very, very indirect while you’re doing it because the goal is not to solve the problem, it’s to understand. Again, hard to do.
For many couples, it requires support to be able to hold this space with each other, especially when it feels like you do need to make a decision, and you know, we also need to be respectful of external pressures. If you are a 38, 39-year-old woman who is married to someone who still isn’t totally sure if they want to have a baby, you guys actually do need to figure that out pretty quick because, you know, that clock runs out. And if you’re figuring out what are we going to do with the kids in two weeks when school is open, or we need to make a decision, and what’s that going to look like, that is a thing that does need to be figured out.
And so, it is also okay to do an intensive when it comes to how we need to understand each other. And also, brainstorming and finding solutions that prioritize each other’s feelings, and being open to the possibility that the final outcome may actually look very different than what both of you had imagined it would look like going into it because the ultimate goal really is not to have this be exactly your way. The ultimate goal is to have a strong, healthy, happy relationship with someone who loves you and understands you, and respects you, and feels that your needs and rights and feelings are just as important to them as they are to you, and vice versa.
And when you’re able to create that emotional space with your partner and have a relationship that is infused with respect and gratitude, and not just tolerance for your differences, but an actual like appreciation for your differences, all of a sudden, the big looming problems don’t seem like problems anymore. And it can be surprisingly effortless to work together, to create a new reality for each other, for yourselves that feels good for both of you.
I know that it sounds a little crazy if you’re stuck in a power struggle. I know it’s so hard to think about letting go of your side and embracing the other. But what are your choices? I mean really, like, because this, continuing to fight, and campaign, and harass your partner into changing clearly doesn’t work. And if you wind up taking a unilateral decision that is made for both of you over their wishes, it can create massive damage and betrayal and can be a big emotional trauma that can be difficult to repair.
So you might want to be arguing with me right now, but try it. Let me know what happens. If you have follow-up questions or comments, leave them for me on the blog at growingself.com, Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby.
And also, again, just with all of this with the understanding—that if it feels unnecessarily hard, if it is disintegrating into unproductive conflict, or if you need to arrive at a workable decision quickly, those are all signs that you may really benefit from enlisting the support of mediator who can help you create understanding and respect and collaborative solutions much more quickly. So just keep that in the back of your mind as a possibility and good luck with things. I know these are harrowing times, and there’s a lot of stuff to hash out together, but I do hope that these strategies help you create alignment and agreement in your relationship. That’s all for today.
I’ll be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast. And in the meantime, let’s listen to some more Coathangers.